Nick Roumel-Brew Pubs: upscale bar hopping for the discerning professional

  On a recent Thursday, after work I headed to the Jolly Pumpkin, on Main Street in Ann Arbor, and ordered five beers.
  My hand-picked team of a dozen or so fellow beer enthusiasts shuffled in, one by one, and ordered their own beers, five by five.
  An hour later, we boarded the party bus and headed to the next brew pub. And the next, and the next, and the next, until we’d each consumed 25 beers, not to mention the chilled Guinness in the party bus.
  Each of us had a notebook with 25 blank “beer scorecards,” measuring qualities like aroma, appearance, flavor, “mouthfeel,” and impressions. A final entry was for the overall grade.
  Those early scorecards were filled with detailed notes, like “smells slightly sweet, cloves,” or “hoppy flavor, mild bitterness, smooth,” but they were slowly derailed by the end of the night into indecipherable scrawling, or baffling entries like “If cows could produce milk (huh?).”
  By the fifth brew pub, there were only four of us left.
  One refused to leave the bus, unwilling to wake up. Another left his beer notebook, and all 25 scorecards, in the back of the bus, before ducking off to meet some friends.
  Still, it was an entertaining and educational evening. At three of our destinations, the owners and/or brewmasters enthusiastically explained each of their products and gave us a tour of the facilities, gleaming tanks of experimental fermentation, containing different styles and products for all tastes.
  I learned a lot.
  What did I know about beer? Before this particular Thursday, not much. I was weaned on Pittsburgh’s Iron City longnecks, which - back in the day before moderation was a virtue - was advertised with the slogan “Beer after beer after Iron City Beer.”
  How did it taste? Cold and wet - especially after a hard summer shift at the mattress factory.
  At the University of Michigan, where the legislature in its infinite wisdom then allowed 18 year olds to drink, Falstaff was the beer of choice on our dormitory floor, precisely because of its pricetag – $1.98 for a twelve pack.
  College beer was a succession of forgettable, cheap American lagers that one did not taste so much as inhaled. A special treat was Coors (for those who didn’t care about union busting), or rarified imports like Heineken or Lowenbrau.
Working a few years later in a French restaurant, I discovered fine wine as the beer alternative – well crafted, varied, and nuanced.
We had one manager, however, who pronounced that upscale beer tasting was the Next Big Thing. This was on the heels of Michael Jackson’s (no, not that one) groundbreaking book, “The World Guide to Beer,” which is widely hailed as influencing the categorization of beer styles, and the forerunner to today’s brewpub movement. You may recall his TV series, “The Beer Hunter.”
 Still, brewpubs (where beers are brewed on the premises) were slow to develop, there reportedly being only five in the United States as late as 1986. Twenty five years later, there are more than that in Washtenaw County, and probably at least a couple of thousand throughout the country.
  Beer is basically four ingredients: water, a fermented starch such as malted barley, brewer’s yeast to aid in fermentation, and a flavoring such as hops.
  A thorough description of beer making and styles is beyond the scope of this article, or more accurately my beer-addled brain, but on our brewpub tour, we focused on about four general categories: lagers, ales, IPA’s, and dark beers, such as porters and stouts.
  Lagers are the most common – the pale, often filtered, light and mild commercial brews.
  Ales are a bit stronger, and balanced with a bittering agent such as hops, to balance the sweetness of the barley malt. They often have a sweet or fruity characteristic. Belgian-style ales are brewed with a candy sugar, with good heft, and nicely balanced.
  IPA’s are shorthand for India Pale Ale style beers, heady with hops (thus the phrase “hopped up”), and a long bitter finish that is an acquired taste. Notwithstanding, IPA’s or hoppy beers have become wildly popular, like the almost gimmicky “Hop Slam” styles, needed to satisfy the ever-increasing hop fixes of hard core beer aficionados.
  Porters and stouts are characterized by dark colors, roasted, chocolatey or coffee flavors, creamy mouthfeel, and higher alcohol content. The difference between them is subtle, stouts being perhaps a little darker and stronger.
  Some beers are built for easy summer drinking; others for contemplative sipping.
  It was marvelous to learn to discern the subtleties of beer tasting, aided by our gracious hosts and the comments of our stalwart beer panel.
  Some were universally loved (or scorned); others met with wild variation in ratings. Some of our panel were decidedly in the hop-loving camp; others (like myself) were appreciative of the style, but slow to love.
  After Jolly Pumpkin (not technically a brewpub, since the brewery is in Dexter), we visited Ann Arbor’s Wolverine Brewery, Original Gravity in Milan, Corner Brewery in Ypsilanti (with the same owners as Arbor Brewing Company in Ann Arbor), and finished at Grizzly Peak.
  Yes, we probably averaged 25 beers each; and although these were typically only 2-4 ounce tasters, we were grateful to have the party bus to transport us.
  The hardest part was having to work Friday. I had originally planned this event for the evening after a big motion hearing that was scheduled Thursday afternoon, but after we arrived in court, the judge’s staff informed us we’d have to postpone until the next afternoon.
  Fortunately I managed to keep the grogginess at bay, and successfully defeated a motion for summary disposition that Friday afternoon.
  I celebrated immediately afterwards – with, naturally, a trip to another brew pub - where we had oh-so-conveniently scheduled an ACLU Lawyers’ Committee meeting.
  Well, at least it was an easy transition into the weekend.

Nick Roumel is a principal with Nacht, Roumel, Salvatore, Blanchard and Walker, PC, a litigation firm in Ann Arbor specializing in employment litigation.
He also has many years of varied restaurant and catering experience, has taught Greek cooking classes, and writes a food/restaurant column for “Current” magazine.